Riding Shotgun

Last night I finished reading Be Slightly Evil by Venkatesh Rao. In one of the final chapters, the author, along with some guest contributors, discusses the status dynamics of holding the door for others. Without drawing any firm conclusions, the questions are raised:

  1. Does holding the door for another person elevate your status relative to them, or lower it?
  2. Does the gender of the door holder and holdee change the relative status exchange?
  3. When holding the door for another, does their proximity to the door affect any status exchange? For example, does holding the door an awkwardly long time disproportionately lower your status?

One of the guest contributors goes so far as to always engineer his placement in a group of colleagues approaching a door, so as to never reach the door first or second, so that others will be obligated by social contract to hold the door for him, thus elevating his status relative to his colleagues (at least in his own mind).

This morning I woke up thinking about how these “status” dynamics might apply to riding shotgun.

Of course this only applies to situations where three or more people are commuting together in an automobile, and you are not the driver. In these cases, the front passenger seat is generally considered the seat of highest status, and is therefore often “fought” over (literally, only among children, one hopes).

“I got shotgun!” or the abbreviated phrase “Shotgun!” will stake your claim on the high-status seat. But does this actually raise or lower your status relative to the other passengers?

My usual tactic is just to approach the vehicle slowly, until it becomes apparent which seat is available for my taking. This is often the front seat, as I am often one of the tallest among my co-passengers, and they will defer to me out of practical concern. But if I’m critical, this timidity must diminish my status, even though I end up with the high-status seat.

How do you approach this situation? What factors influence your behavior? Do you behave differently when there are three passengers versus 4, or, God forbid, 5 (which, in most passenger cars, introduces the much-loathed, low-status bitch seat)? Do gender dynamics affect your behavior? Do you ever offer up the front seat to a co-passenger? If so, when or why? What if your boss, or another superior, is in the group with you? What if you’re the boss?

Now suppose your express goal is to maximize your own status, how will this affect the situation?

I’ve not thought much about this. I see it as a fascinating social thought experiment, more than anything else.

First, let me return to the common scenario, in which someone in the group shouts “Shotgun” while approaching the car. This person is clearly claiming the high-status position. But by stating it explicitly, they may also convey an aggressive attitude (which could be good or bad, depending on the situation, or the goals of the aggressor). If they take the shotgun position too seriously, the entire status situation could even backfire. Someone who always calls shotgun, he may soon be seen as immature, and the others in the group may begin patronizing him, effectively lowering his status.

What if you reverse the situation, then, and defer the front seat to someone else all the time. If you’re the first to say “Why don’t you take the front?” instead of the first to say “I got shotgun!” this could be seen as a subtle suggestion that you believe you are owed the front seat by right (putting yourself in a position of high status), then deferring the honor to someone else. By deferring the “honor”, nobody is in a position to challenge your implicit claim of high status, and you’ll also come across as gracious (assuming no other subtext in your offer).

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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